By Lucette Davies

East Sussex Save the NHS Campaign, which is backed by Labour and Green parties, Trades Councils and People’s Assemblies across Hastings, Rother and Eastbourne, accuses the Government of using the Covid-19 pandemic as a smokescreen behind which our NHS is being further dismantled.  One move that threatens its future in particular is the UK Trade Bill that is progressing through Parliament right now.

The Trade Bill is claimed to be simply a technical instrument, designed to govern how the UK forms trade agreements now we have left the EU, and only concerned with transferring the trade agreements that existed between the EU and other countries into UK law.  But its provisions will also allow our Government to negotiate changes to existing trade deals and form new ones. 

Conquest Hospital staff applauding a Covid-19 recovery
PICTURE: East Sussex Healthcare Trust

Clauses that were in the bill before the election last December giving parliament a say in trade deals have been ditched.  This is fundamentally undemocratic: negotiations on trade deals should be transparent and open to scrutiny by parliament.

Low regulations

The purpose of trade deals is to allow private business to trade freely across borders by reducing import and export tariffs, levelling out regulations between the two countries, and preventing any preferential treatment towards businesses from either country.  But they have the effect of forcing a government’s hand, preventing it from increasing regulations, which are largely about protecting people and may limit the capacity of a private business to make profits.  Any move by a government to change regulations and therefore reduce that capacity to profit could result in those businesses suing.  

So why be concerned about our NHS in a trade deal?  It has been fractured into many disjointed pieces by this Tory Government and previous governments.  It can no longer be considered a publicly owned and provided service; it is now a marketised economy, open for profit. 

The deal that worries us most is between the USA and UK, currently being negotiated. Although our Government has promised that the NHS is “off the table”, Donald Trump has said that everything is on the table. There are already US corporations operating within our NHS, and a trade deal would grant them access to so many more aspects of our healthcare. 

Access for US corporations

Access to the UK’s unique data base of 55 million patient records would be worth £5bn per year to private companies.  Access to the control of intellectual property could result in the Americans increasing the length of patents on drugs.  The UK would then lose the right to make cheaper generic drugs.

Granting the US access to public procurement, so that US corporations could start providing the things our NHS has to buy, would risk a lowering of our safety standards on those items. It could also mean a lowering of public health regulations, those that govern the sale of tobacco and alcohol, food safety rules, or the minimum wage.

Furthermore, if we ever attempted to renationalise our NHS preventing US healthcare corporations from operating in our healthcare service, they could sue our Government.  If our Government ended the trade deal, then the right to sue would still exist for another 20 years.

Exclude the NHS

On the other hand, if the Trade Bill carried a clause that our NHS has to be excluded from any trade deals, then our Government would be forced to list specific services which are included in the deal as opposed to services that are excluded.  This would give greater protection. 

We also need a general clause in the bill giving parliament the right to scrutinise trade agreements as they are formed.    

We do not want to emerge from this pandemic only to discover that, while we were distracted, our Government has destroyed the healthcare service that has helped us survive it.  East Sussex Save the NHS Campaign has sent direct emails to each of the MPs in East Sussex.  We urge you to contact yours and express your concerns about how this Trade Bill could lead to trade agreements that have this effect. Our elected representatives must hear the strength of feeling in our communities that their NHS is treasured and must be protected. 

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.